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January 22, 2003 Volume 3, Issue 4
 
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Let Me Finish, Please

by

We use meetings to exchange information and to explore complex issues. In open discussion, we tend to interrupt each other. Interruptions can be disruptive, distracting, funny, essential, and frustratingly common. What can we do to limit interruptions without depriving ourselves of their benefits?

Kristin stopped talking in mid-sentence. What was the point, she thought. She couldn't keep her own words straight with Dennis over-talking her. But she didn't want to let him get away with it, so she said in her best imitation of stern, "Excuse me, please, Dennis, I wasn't finished."

A cliff interrupting a trailThat got his attention. It got everyone else's attention, too, and Kristin regretted that. Maybe it was better to just let him roll over me, she thought.

Kristin is struggling with an issue that affects many of us — what to do about being interrupted, especially by repeat offenders.

Much of the problem is beyond your ability to resolve as an individual. Only the group as a whole can really address the part of the problem that traces to cultural patterns. It's a worthy activity, and I'll write more about it next time. For now, let's focus on what you can do yourself. Here are some tips for dealing with interruptions when you have the floor at a meeting.

Even though someone
might have interrupted you,
you might bear some
of the responsibility
When someone interrupts you, check first to see whether you mind
Not all interruptions are bad or disrespectful or malevolent. We're often grateful for a relevant question, a really funny remark, supportive evidence, a key clarification, or even a "Yes, I noticed that, too" — if it's brief and to the point.
Sidebars aren't interruptions
When two people engage in a sidebar, they aren't interrupting you — they're disrupting the meeting. Taking personal offense probably won't help. If the meeting has a Chair, ask the Chair for order. Otherwise, ask the meeting at large for order.
Sometimes you interrupt yourself
Sometimes as you're talking, you recall a related idea, or you think of something to add before continuing. Whether or not you see this digression as an interruption, you could be interrupting yourself if you insert it into what you're saying. It's almost always safer not to interrupt yourself.
Wrap it up
Sometimes you're the root cause of the interruption, especially if you're taking too much time, or plowing over already-plowed ground. Be respectful of everyone's time — wrap it up.
Pause strategically
As you're speaking, some of your listeners are actually just waiting — they're looking for cues that you're finished, so they can jump in. They interpret pauses as cues. Pausing at the end of a sentence or clause, especially when accompanied by a breath, invites interruption. To avoid this, pause for breath only in mid-clause.

Some interrupters are actually trying to be rude or intimidating, or worse. If that's the case, the problem is bigger than interrupting, and only a private conversation can help address it. Whatever you do, avoid email.

If you tend to interrupt others yourself, consider cutting back. Unless you do, interruptions will probably continue without interruption. Go to top Top  Next issue: Discussus Interruptus  Next Issue
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For an exploration of interruptions from the point of group as a whole, check out "Discussus Interruptus," Point Lookout for January 29, 2003.

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome
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